My Peque Gallaga Interview

Maurice Claudio Luis Ruiz de Luzuriaga “Peque” Gallaga (1943-2020). [From the National Commission for Culture and the Arts]

I will admit that I tried, for the longest time, to keep distance between myself and Peque Gallaga. During the publicity blitz for his first solo film, Oro, Plata, Mata [Gold, Silver, Death] (1982), I preferred to interview his wife, Madie, the film’s producer who also happened to be the daughter of my mother’s supervisor at what was then the national sugar institute. He had a reputation for being temperamental and I preferred to avoid celebrity types, although I discovered later that I enjoyed studying them. Since this was the “new cinema” moment when the film world lavished adulation on auteurs, and OPM was a star turn more for its director than for any of its actors, Peque became as much the star of one of the Experimental Cinema of the Philippines’ initial productions as Nora Aunor was (then-already) the star of the other, Ishmael Bernal’s Himala [Miracle].

Gallaga directing his films: Oro, Plata, Mata (1982, above) and “Manananggal [Viscera Sucker]” segment of Shake, Rattle & Roll (1984). [From Focus on Filipino Films and Ronald Rios]


In fact I’d made his acquaintance earlier, when I had just joined a then-still-studious critics group that decided to invite the members of the newly formed production designers’ guild in order to get pointers on how to properly evaluate their category – for an annual awards system that I also soon repudiated. When the guild president kept insisting that PD practitioners insist on lavish adornments in order to shame producers who skimped on production budgets, Peque spoke out and said that the best kind of mise-en-scène was one that did not draw attention to itself. In effect, he stated that PDs should learn to welcome the challenge of working within narrow budgets, although whether he knew or didn’t, by saying so he contributed one vital brick to the ethical critical structure I was building for myself.[1]

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On another occasion, in one of those many self-congratulatory receptions the then-booming industry loved to sponsor, I had occasion to mention to him that I attended the rescreening of a film where he participated as actor. This was Mario O’Hara’s Tatlong Taóng Walang Diyos [Three Godless Years], which came out in 1976, the same year he won the critics’ prize for production design for Eddie Romero’s Ganito Kami Noon … Paano Kayo Ngayon? [As We Were]. Over coffee after the screening, one of the founding members asked me if I’d seen it before (I had), and what impressed me about the present viewing. “Peque’s performance,” I said, and he agreed. I said it might be the best of that year for the supporting-actor category, and he agreed again, somewhat sheepishly (I thought, because Peque wasn’t even nominated for it).[2]

About a year later, when the agency provided me with a scholarship to complete a second bachelor’s degree in the country’s first academic film program at the national university, I arrived at the office to turn in my output for the day. The whole place was abuzz with the premiere of the first sex film made by Regal Films, the country’s most successful studio. It wasn’t the first so-called bold film, or even the first locally produced bold film, to be exhibited free of censorship at the Manila Film Center; neither was it Peque’s OPM follow-up, since he’d already exhibited Bad Bananas sa Puting Tabing [Bad Bananas on the Silver Screen] (made for the 1983 Metro Manila Film Festival) as well as the soft-core historical allegory Virgin Forest, also a Regal production, earlier in 1985. Scorpio Nights promised to be different though, with its title suggesting an overtly and unapologetically sex-focused product.

But the buzz I mentioned was something else. It centered on an event that occurred right before the pricey but expectedly jampacked screening. Those who’d attended said that when it was Peque’s turn to speak, he let go of a volley of curses, naming specific individuals who were officials in the ECP and/or colleagues of mine in the critics’ group. Despite the fact that I’d already forsworn participation in the group’s annual awards after extreme frustration with not just the individual choices but also the hypocrisy and cynicism behind the process, Peque’s outburst made me anxious. At that time, I guessed that it had to do with the backlash by left-leaning critics against OPM, to which our group had given its highest prizes; some of the OPM-bashers were former members, others were later invited to be part of the group.

With some hindsight, I later thought that it also may have had to do with the fact that the cash-strapped ECP bypassed its next year’s second-place scriptwriting contest winner, Flores de Mayo [Flowers of May], and favored the third, Soltero [Bachelor] (1984), thus ensuring that Flores would never get done: not only was Flores written by Jose Javier Reyes, the same person that Peque recruited to write OPM as well as Bad Bananas, but Soltero was written by an official of the ECP – one of the names Peque had singled out. Friends at the agency however told me that any hurt feelings were subsequently smoothed over via an apology that Peque issued.

I got some measure of assurance later, after I completed the film program and worked up enough nerve to contact him to tell him how much I appreciated Scorpio Nights, how I disagreed with the critics locking it out of their major awards categories, and how relieved I was to drop out of the group so I could finally criticize them as an independent entity. He was effusive with praise for me, pointing out something that didn’t occur to me up to that point: “those people,” he said, “should have done what you did – study the field that they were dabbling in, so they’d know what they’re talking about and earn the right to call themselves qualified.”

Films co-directed by Gallaga: Binhi [Seed] (with Butch Perez, 1973, above) and Sonata (with Lore Reyes, 2013). [From Ronald Rios and Rappler]

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Academe gave me the time and inclination (though not the funds) to pursue a career as resident film critic of what was then the country’s most consequential newsmagazine, National Midweek. A foreign graduate-study grant became available right after I published my first book, and I stopped communicating with Pinas industry participants for nearly a decade. I maintained contact with some practitioners of a narrative format that I announced as my dissertation topic, but when the most prolific among them, Ishmael Bernal, died unexpectedly, I decided to stay put in the US until I completed my doctorate.

This is my roundabout way of explaining why my most intensive interactions with Peque since the present millennium consisted entirely of social-network exchanges. I knew I could get a great interview out of him, but in the meanwhile what I needed was some information for the book on Manila by Night (1980) that I was writing. I knew some of his stories as its production designer (for which he won his second critics’ prize), and I was aware that he was referring to his work on it when he articulated his principles during the critics’ soirée with the PD guild several years earlier.

What stumped me regarding Manila by Night was a different type of design – film sound. I apologetically brought up the topic with him, expecting him to hint at least that I should focus on his visual specialization. What do you know, he did get involved with the movie’s aural design, confirming my suspicion that the film’s extremely accurate and well-timed voices and noises were actually artificially – and painstakingly – recreated in the sound studio.[3] Much like creating a news report using memory and restaging the incidents one wanted to cover, carefully enough so that the total reality effect was replicated.

So one of my long-term to-do projects was an all-out Peque Gallaga interview, covering the full spectrum of his participation in film and film-related activities: as project conceptualizer, director (for film, TV, and theater), performer, visual and sound designer, theater-guild founder, professor, and whatever else he might remind me. I just needed to muster the guts to handle what I thought was his contempt for film critics, since he never failed to blast my older colleagues even after they handed him a well-deserved life achievement award about a decade ago. I also take every opportunity to point out their shortcomings, so at least we could have that useful convergence as starting point.

Gallaga and Lore Reyes, his co-director since 1987. [From Lore Reyes’s Facebook page]

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The final factor that eliminated all my misgivings regarding his belligerence occurred via a casual conversation I had late last year with his co-director, Lore Reyes.[4] I mentioned, in one of my recollections of the ECP screenings, Peque’s flare-up during the Scorpio Nights premiere. Apparently, according to Lore, everyone else had forgotten about it – but of course I couldn’t, since I had to steel myself for a Peque interview that was never to be, as it turned out. The story involved an otherwise highly regarded personality who was associated not just with ECP but also with the critics group as well as the national university’s film program. I deduced that he was acting with the support or encouragement of people in these institutions, the same people Peque had called out.

From our November 21, 2019, exchange: “Did you know? I caught Hammy [Agustin Sotto] cutting Scorpio Nights near dawn on the morning before its ECP premiere. I told Hammy I was going to fetch Peque, he said go ahead, fetch Peque. So I did. Peque punched him and kicked him in the head. It was a scene straight out of a cheap indie movie: a 5,000-foot reel unspooling all over Jess Navarro’s editing room in [the Regal office in] Valencia as Jess and I tried to stop Peque from beating up Hammy.[5] Later that day, [unknown to Manila Film Center head] Johnny Litton and Hammy, Jess restored all the clips that Hammy had cut (we brought a Steenbeck to the ECP parking lot and bribed the ECP projectionist so we could borrow the premiere print). That was where Peque’s rage was coming from, when he cursed all those personalities who were right there in front of him on the first row. They tried to cut his film without his knowledge.”

Goodness, I realized, I had nothing to fear at all about the man. He would defy hell itself to fight for something he thought was right. About that interview….

Notes

An account of Peque Gallaga’s achievements is recounted in the tribute issued by the National Commission for Culture and the Arts on its Facebook page. An abridged version of this article, titled “Peque’s Rage: A Retelling,” was published in the May 12, 2020, issue of The FilAm; it was also reprinted in the June 2020 issue of The FilAm: Newsmagazine Serving Filipino Americans in New York. (Click on pic below of the newsmag version to open PDF file.)

[1] In Monchito Nocon’s unpublished 2012 interview with Peque Gallaga regarding Manila by Night, Peque quoted Ishmael Bernal’s response when he demanded a reshoot of the Halloween revelers’ frolic at Manila Bay, since the camera operator had forgotten to bring the right lenses: “A film can never be perfect. It has to have a rough edge … a mistake … a human aspect.”

[2] To the credit of the late Mario A. Hernando, with whom I was conversing, he devoted a portion of his newspaper column (Kibitzer, in the now-defunct Times Journal) to raise this very same issue. The incident also alerted me to the dangers of passing canonical judgment based on swift and temporally marked-off considerations such as awards schedules.

[3] Abbo Q. de la Cruz, who played the rebellious peasant in Oro, Plata, Mata [Gold, Silver, Death], and whose Misteryo sa Tuwa [Joyful Mystery] (1984) was the first film completed during the second and final batch of ECP productions, was credited for sound effects in Manila by Night. On a Facebook post that was subsequently deleted by the account owner, Peque mentioned how he and Abbo locked themselves in the sound studio and worked themselves to exhaustion, until they felt they had all the possible audio coverage that the director might require.

[4] Another critical issue that besets the Gallaga credit is the directing partnership he maintained with Lore Reyes. This should resolve by itself as Reyes continues making films on his own, as he has done and as he should continue doing. Gregory Paul Y. Daza, in “The Unsung, Ignored Half of the Gallaga-Reyes Movies” (for the September 4, 2015 issue of BusinessWorld), provided what amounts to a useful primer for the Reyes-Gallaga dilemma.

[5] Tina Cuyugan, in a Facebook comment posted on April 10, 2020, narrated that “Peque did mention that he went to that encounter with Hammy brandishing (although not using, in the end) a cane that had been hand-carved by prisoners in Palawan. The type of precise Bakunawan detail that can stick to one’s memory for 35 years.” (“Nelson Bakunawa” was the name Peque used for his account, bakunawa being a mythological serpentine dragon capable of disrupting weather cycles and causing eclipses and tremors; the account has been archived by his family and is no longer available.) My own assessment of Hammy’s extremely conflicted positions as film critic, historian, festival promoter, educator, and aspiring industry practitioner may have to wait until I have been able to ensure my own objectivity about his actuations vis-à-vis the far-from-perfect institutions wherein he operated. For an essential and intensive retrospective report on the production history of Scorpio Nights, see Jerome Gomez’s “Coital Recall,” in Rogue (November 2015): 74-81.

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About Joel David

Teacher, scholar, & gadfly of film, media, & culture. [Photo of Kiehl courtesy of Danny Y. & Vanny P.] View all posts by Joel David

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